2012-12-13 / Front Page

Beyond Sandy: The new normal

Speakers tell forum rebuilding efforts must go beyond replacing what was lost
Staff Writer

Peter Kasabach, executive director of New Jersey Future, speaks at the “Rebuilding a Resilient New Jersey Shore” conference at Monmouth University on Dec. 7. 
KEITH HEUMILLER Peter Kasabach, executive director of New Jersey Future, speaks at the “Rebuilding a Resilient New Jersey Shore” conference at Monmouth University on Dec. 7. KEITH HEUMILLER I n the immediate aftermath of superstorm Sandy, the future seemed a long way off. But as short-term concerns of safety and shelter have given way to longer-term worries over tax revenues and the tourist season, local officials, business owners and residents have no choice but to look further down the road.

In recognition of this, the nonprofit policy organization New Jersey Future partnered with Monmouth University to stage a “Rebuilding a Resilient New Jersey Shore” conference on the college’s West Long Branch campus Dec. 7. The conference brought together experts in climatology, coastlines, flood protection, architecture, housing, environmental policy, insurance and planning to discuss long-range, Jersey-centric issues such as flood mitigation, construction codes and climate change.

Peter Reinhart, director of the Kislak Real Estate Institute at Monmouth University and board chair of New Jersey Future, told the more than 400 conference attendees that their goal should not be simply to replace, but to grow.

“It’s natural to want to recover and rebuild what we had before,” he told the gathered officials, business owners, policy makers and community leaders. “But what should we be planning for in the future?

“How do we recover from this destruction and move forward with a smarter, more resilient New Jersey that will be better able to withstand another Sandy?”

The four-hour conference was broken up into sections, each covering a different topic or particular issue confronting local, county or state governments planning to rebuild stronger, more efficient infrastructure and respond better to emergency situations down the road.

The morning began with testimony from Anthony Broccoli, professor of Atmospheric Science and director of the Climate and Environmental Change Initiative at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, who painted a bleak picture of world weather patterns in the coming years.

“We know that there is a new normal as a result of the event of Oct. 29 and what has followed,” he said. “The future will not be the same as the past.”

Broccoli, clicking through before-andafter storm images and statistical graphs on two large projection screens flanking the stage, explained how rising temperatures and sea levels, combined with and exacerbated by significant levels of carbon dioxide pollution, will lead to more powerful, more devastating, Sandy-like storms in the future.

“The tide gauge at Sandy Hook stopped working when it reached 13.2 feet [during Sandy],” Broccoli said. “This was more than 3 feet higher than the previous record levels.

“While the meteorology of Sandy may have been a once in a lifetime experience, the impacts may not be.”

Broccoli and Megan Linkin, a global reinsurance industry executive and climate expert who studied under Broccoli at Rutgers, both cited the state’s recent record high temperatures and record precipitation levels as clear signs that New Jersey’s climate is changing, and said residents should plan on more potentially devastating weather events throughout the 21st century.

“Because the sea level has risen and is projected to continue to rise, by 2050 another storm less intense than Sandy will be able to generate a higher storm tide along the coast in the New York, New Jersey metro area,” Linkin said.

Sandy, which was classified as a Category 1 hurricane prior to making landfall, could be overshadowed in coming years as more powerful storms become more common in the area, she said. “There could be an increase in the most severe events; those are Category 4 and Category 5 storms.”

A Category 3 storm at high tide, she said, “could bring potentially 20 to 25 feet of storm surge into the Raritan Bay.”

Linkin also had bleak news about the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), which provides discounted rates to residents who live in designated special flood zones and are required to purchase flood insurance through the program.

The NFIP, Linkin said, has taken significant financial hits in recent years.

“Since 2001, five multi-billion dollar losses have occurred, leaving the NFIP in $18 billion of debt,” she said.

“The NFIP has borrowing capacity up to $20 billion. If Sandy has caused $12 billion in losses, there is going to be a shortfall.”

Exact figures for Sandy-related NFIP claims are not yet available, but Linkin said the growing financial strain of storm-driven flood damage incurred during events like Tropical Storm Irene and Sandy led the NFIP to rethink its operations, investigate private insurance solutions and develop new, more cost-effective strategies for governments to utilize in the future.

New flood and disaster insurance options may be available to local, county and state governments in the near future. Mark Mauriello, an environmental affairs and planning professional and former commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), said recent construction trends and overdevelopment in flood-prone areas have created a risky environment for New Jersey residents.

“We tend to underestimate these hazards. We know that the standards that we apply to construction are insufficient to protect people and it’s evidenced by the poststorm damage surveys,” he said. “We’re just not building resilient communities the way that we could and we should.”

Mauriello said that local, state and national agencies need to coordinate better and establish development regulations that account for the changing climate and the serious weather conditions New Jersey will face in the future.

“The problem is that if you build to a standard that doesn’t account for future conditions, you wind up with development that is vulnerable in the future,” he said.

In addition to flood mitigation strategies such as raising homes, which is already under way in the state, Mauriello said municipalities need to consider building new dune systems, re-establishing wetlands, and possibly prohibiting reconstruction in some of the most hard-hit areas.

“This is how barrier islands migrate and have for thousands of years, but we have a problem in that we have a static development line and we’re not allowing that to occur,” he said, referring to the way Sandy displaced tons of sand on Long Beach Island and other coastal areas.

“Maybe there is an opportunity to focus some buyouts and allow for this area that doesn’t support homes to become a new dune zone.”

He said other areas, like the flood-ravaged Raritan Bayshore, may benefit from scaling back bulkhead projects, filling in shallow areas and promoting the growth of new wetlands.

Other speakers included representatives from FEMA, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and Dr. Ed Blakely, former executive director of the Office of Recovery and Development Administration in New Orleans, who explained the ways in which local and federal agencies can better coordinate in the near and distant future.

“This is a decade-long process. This is not going to be over next year,” said Blakely, who explained programs such as a “soft second mortgage,” which New Orleans officials used to encourage residents to move into safer areas following Hurricane Katrina.

The most important thing, he said, is to work cooperatively, from Washington, D.C. down to the smallest bayside towns.

“This entire region is in this together,” he said. “We share this coastline.”

Following the conference, N.J. Future Executive Director Peter Kasabach said he hoped the event gave the hundreds in attendance a chance to step back, take a breather, and seriously consider the future before trying to resurrect the past.

“We’ll see what happens as a result,” Kasabach said. “The hope is that people understand that there is a new normal that we really do have to deal with, and that we don’t fall back on simply, ‘Let’s just rebuild what we had before.’ ”

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